George Floyd’s murder transformed America

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George Floyd

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George Floyd, one year later

Emmett Till was lynched. Rosa Park refused to give up her seat. His murder and her arrest lit the match that fired up the 20th century civil rights movement. But before Emmett, there were other Emmetts, Black bodies swinging from trees, beaten to a pulp, left to die alone in the woods. And before Rosa, other Rosas decided they too, were fed up. They weren’t giving up their seats, not today, no, not ever.

Eric Garner couldn’t breathe in Staten Island. Freddie Gray broke his neck on an alleged “rough ride” in Baltimore. Michael Brown lay in the streets of Ferguson, baking under the Missouri sun. For four hours.

'Black Lives Matter' painted in all caps in yellow across asphalt in Washington, DC

A city worker repaints Black Lives Matter Plaza on May 13 in Washington, D.C. The words "Black Lives Matter" was painted on a two block section of 16th Street last year following the George Floyd protests. | Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Cities erupted. Again. And again. And again.

When does the pressure applied to pain points finally become too much, forcing change — change by any means necessary?

When does change = progress?

George Floyd was murdered one year ago today. His death, as his young daughter put it, “changed the world.” And so, at first, we measured that change in time. The amount of time, that is, it took for him to die, the dividing line between then and now. First we counted that time, clocking in at 8 minutes, 46 seconds. Then prosecutors counted again: It was, actually, they said, 7 minutes, 46 seconds. By the time Derek Chauvin faced his jury, we’d all settled on a number.

Nine minutes, 29 seconds.

However we measure it, George Floyd took what felt like an eternity to die. And as we watched his final moments, many of us were changed, too.

Something about that video, about those 9 minutes, 29 seconds, left us — many of us — unsettled in ways the countless other videos of Black people dying at the hands of police … didn’t.

And just like Emmett Till’s murder served as a catalyst more than 60 years ago — birthing Brown v. Board of Education, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act — Floyd’s killing shook something loose.

Not in the faux, “cancel culture” way decried by critics. But woke as in awakened. Compelled to act. Across the globe, people of all stripes took to the streets. They protested in South Africa and in South America, in Seoul and in Syria…. Chanting “Black Lives Matter,” “Colored Lives Matter,” “Papuan Lives Matter,” “Native American Lives Matter”…. This month the tragedy in Israel and Palestine birthed a new hashtag: #PalestinianLivesMatter. Teachers, activists, companies, politicians, scrambled to do something, anything. Aunt Jemima got a makeover. Juneteenth became a paid holiday. Confederate statues were toppled. The “B” in Black got capitalized. Editors looked around their newsrooms and realized they needed to change, too. (Including this one.)

Black Lives Matter activists marching through downtown Columbus, OH  at night, holding bullhornsMan holding up sign with writing 'Please stop murdering my people' with 'please' crossed out

Left: Black Lives Matter activists march through downtown Columbus, Ohio. Right: A Black Lives Matter activist holds a sign against police brutality in front of the Ohio Statehouse in reaction to the shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant on April 20. | Stephen Zenner/Getty Images

The neighborhood where Floyd was killed changed, a series of barricades, checkpoints and art installations where activists refuse to budge until their demands for a complete overhaul of the city’s police department are met.

Corporations attempted to get woke. Yes, there were those much-mocked black squares on Instagram. But corporations tried to show up — or appear to show up — in other ways. Corporate CEOs, including, Apple’s Tim Cook, Cisco’s Chuck Robbins, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon praised the guilty verdicts in the trial of Derek Chauvin. Both Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola, two of Georgia’s largest employers, under pressure from activists, took firm stands against GOP-led efforts in the state to limit voting access.

Some white people got woke. Racial justice protests picked up more white participants than ever before, according to researchers. Nearly 65 percent of protesters filling the streets in New York, Washington and Los Angeles last year were white.

The Department of Justice began investigating — in ways they hadn’t before — police departments and individuals charged with violating the civil rights of Black and brown Americans killed by cops.

Meanwhile, Black women were deemed the saviors of a political party. And some Black women leaders, mayors of major cities, were tested in ways they hadn’t been before, particularly as cities went up in flames. Sometimes they met the challenge. Sometimes they didn’t.

And some things didn’t change. Some things remained — dispiritedly — the same. The pace of fatal encounters with police remains virtually unchanged from last year. Rashard Brooks, Andrew Brown Jr., Ma’Khia Bryant, Adam Toledo and Daunte Wright all met the same fate as George Floyd. Last week, we learned of the killing of Ronald Greene Jr. at the hands of police in Monroe, La., in 2019, almost exactly a year before Floyd died.

Police originally said Greene died after crashing his car into a tree following a high-speed chase. But released body cam footage shows police choking, punching and firing a stun gun at the 49-year-old barber, while they cursed at him and called him names. In the 46-minute video, Greene begs for his life: “I’m scared! I’m scared!”

That video, coming in the wake of the anniversary of Floyd’s death, is an all-too-vivid illustration of the numbers: Black people are still three times more likely to be killed by the police than are white people. Native Americans are also much more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than are white Americans.

And yet, amid our annus horribilis, something has shifted, something tangible — and intangible. Maybe it’s just a shift in perception, a deeper understanding of all the ways in which an accident of birth, mere degrees of melanin and hair texture, can shape one’s lot in life.

We’re trying to understand that, too. Consider these six stories our attempt to do just that, digging deep, taking the measure of a movement, of a moment, of change.

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